"A facility for defending objectification." Credit: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

November 9, 2021   5 mins

Maybe there’s nobody better to critique objectification than Emily Ratajkowski. After all, the 30-year-old model has spent nearly a decade being one of the most lusted-after women in the world. In 2013, the video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” made her famous for showing her tits. After that, she became — as she puts it in a recent video for the New Yorker — “the poster child for choice feminism”, always ready to explain why showing her tits was the “empowering” thing to do.

And now, as the author of a new essay collection entitled My Body, she’s taken it upon herself to explain that showing your tits can in fact lead to being exploited thanks to what she calls “the cis-hetero patriarchal construct that we live in”. Predictably, perhaps, her hotness — the thing which made her valuable and gave her a feeling of power — has turned out to be something she can neither own nor control.

“I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own,” she wrote in a piece for New York Magazine last year called “Buying Myself Back”. This is literally true in a way that feels intuitively disturbing. Copyright law gives more weight to the person who creates a picture than it does to the person who appears in it — the essay describes her efforts to purchase her own image. Even when the law might have been on her side, enforcing it through the courts was so expensive as to be practically impossible.

And so an artist could turn a photo from Ratajkowski’s Instagram into a “painting” and resell it for tens of thousands of dollars, but when Ratajkowski posted a paparazzi shot of herself to her feed, she was threatened with a legal bill from the agency. And when — after she’d gone from working model to global superstar — a photographer she worked with early on in her career turned nude photographs of her into a series of books, Ratajkowski could do nothing to stop him.

The violation, in her telling, went deeper than image rights: she says that the photographer sexually assaulted her following the shoot (he denies this). She’s also accused Robin Thicke of groping her during the filming for “Blurred Lines”. The concept for the video — three barely-dressed women dancing around three fully-suited men — was supposed to be a satire on the song’s dirtbag celebration of the male gaze, as conceived by the female director. But when the lyrics of a song are telling a “good girl” that “you know you want it”, perhaps it’s unsurprising that not everyone involved appreciated the difference between ironic toplessness and just plain toplessness.

In 2016, Vogue published a listicle of “All the times Emily Ratajkowski fought the patriarchy”, with “being comfortable with nudity” at number two. Now we discover that the patriarchy has always been perfectly comfortable turning her nudity back against her. Essentially, Ratajkowski has had to take a public lesson in something that many women learn quietly between the ages of 20 and 30: the “empowerment” you get from being wanted by men is nothing at all like actual power.

It’s unfair to criticise Ratajkowski for that. But it’s more than reasonable to ask how she ever got a reputation for patriarchy fighting when her fame has always been grounded in her facility for defending objectification. In the summer of 2013, “Blurred Lines” became a flashpoint for the nascent conversation about sex and consent which would — eventually — tip over into #MeToo. To feminist bloggers, the song’s jovial sleaze sounded “rapey”, and the video underlined that: they didn’t hear a party anthem, they heard dangerous propaganda.

In the end, only one person did well from it. Thicke’s career rapidly sank into ignominy, with righteous onlookers gleefully cheering as he lost a copyright case over the song, suffered a ruinous divorce and finally sank into commercial obscurity. But after “Blurred Lines”, Ratajkowski was everywhere: GQ anointed her “the girl who stole summer”, and sent Terry Richardson to photograph her in full pop-art porno style. (It would be another four years before the rumours of sexual abuse against Richardson finally sank him.)

Ratajkowski looked phenomenal, of course. But it was what she had to say that made her a sensation. For the women’s press, she offered a version of feminism which came — conveniently — with absolutely no hard choices at all. “I feel lucky that I can wear what I want, sleep with who I want, and dance how I want, and still be a feminist”, Cosmopolitan quoted her as saying. What feminism might involve beyond having sex, dancing and wearing or not wearing clothes — and how it might relate to a woman whose primary problem is not the efficient exploitation of their own hotness — was very little discussed.

Meanwhile, male profile writers swooned over the fact that she appeared to be not only hot but smart. Later, she would summarise this kind of journalism contemptuously as “she has breasts and claims to read”, but — gross as it was to read interviews which breathlessly described both her peerless body and her taste for literature in translation — there’s no question that she did well from this coverage. It catapulted her from being one more model to being the ultimate fantasy girlfriend, with roles in Gone Girl and Entourage. She wasn’t just a piece of ass. She was a very articulate piece of ass.

And what she articulated was what many men wanted to hear: not objections but willingness. When Piers Morgan mocked her for writhing around in spaghetti and tomato sauce in a shoot for the magazine Love, she shot back with a mini-dissertation on female agency: “The way I dress, act, flirt, dance, have sex — those are my decisions and they shouldn’t be impacted by men
 My life is on my terms and if I feel like putting on sexy underwear, it’s for me. Personal choice is the core ideal in my concept of feminism.”

Rousing stuff, although perhaps it’s worth pausing to ask how many women would choose to roll around in a gallon of marinara if there weren’t a financial incentive involved. “Men act and women appear,” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing in 1972. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.” Ratajkowski’s talent — even more than the genetic lottery of her looks, more than a knack for posing — was for embracing her role as the surveyed while giving voice to the surveyor.

She was an object with the fortuitous gift of speaking only to say how happy she was to be objectified, although this was very much a performance, she says now. In an interview with the Sunday Times, she explains that she eventually came to wonder “if I was so powerful and felt so great about how I had succeeded, then why was I unhappy, sometimes more than unhappy — anxious — about going to work?” My Body is the product of that reckoning, and it may well be sincere but it’s also a pivot that conveniently aligns her with the shifting mood around how we talk about sexualisation.

But if Ratajkowski’s earlier version of “feminism” was individualistic and self-serving in celebrating choice as the ultimate political good, her new approach seems equally solipsistic. She writes about herself, and how far one model’s experience of objectification can be extended to become a universal representation of female experience seems doubtful. Dropping a Dworkin quote next to a bikini shot doesn’t exactly suggest a rigorous engagement with feminist thinking. I suppose one way of neutralising the “she has breasts and claims to read” approach is by proving you haven’t read very much.

Look at her Instagram, and you’ll see that her newfound grasp of power and image hasn’t stopped her posting photos where she’s fellating lollipops or just a rack. This isn’t politics. It’s positioning for the next stage in a career that has always depended on offering enough self-commentary to clothe softcore visuals in intellectualism. There are plenty of people with far more profound takes on objectification, but less impressive bodies. Ratajkowski gets a hearing, though, because she’s still the supreme object.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.